BELL RINGING AT WOODCHURCH
The sound of bells ringing is deeply rooted in British culture. Almost everyone in Britain lives
within hearing range of bells. They provide the grand soundtrack to our historic moments, call
out for our celebrations and toll sadly in empathy with our grief.
The bitter-sweet sound of just one bell or the majesty of a whole peal has become part of the English heritage, and much of the country's
history can be traced through the history of its bells.
They call us to wake, to pray, to work, to arms, to feast and, in times of crisis, to come together. William the Conqueror ordered the curfew bells
to sound at 8 o’clock as a signal for putting out fires, and the custom is still continued in a few English towns even though the law enforcing it
was abolished more than 850 years ago! Above all, bells are the sound of freedom and peace; in World War II they hung silently until the day
they could ring in the peace.
The “bell-shape” known to most people has been developed to make it possible to vibrate a circle of metal (the bell) by means of a clapper hung
inside which hits the circumference as the bell is swung to and fro. Church bells are designed like this and are usually housed in a tower and
fixed to wheels which are turned from below by means of long ropes. They are rung 'full circle' by skilled individuals, meaning that they can
control exactly when they strike. (See the section ‘Bell Ringing in Action’ for more about the way bells are rung.)
The History of the Woodchurch Bells
As far as we know, a bell or bells have been housed in Woodchurch tower since the tower was built at the western end of the church in the
14th century, although there is no record of any bells until 1548. Then it is noted that there were three, weighing 7, 8 and 12 cwt respectively.
Just over a hundred years later the tower became unstable (more likely due the way it was built than to the weight of the bells!) and massive
stepped angle buttresses were erected at the north-west and south-west corners – you can see the 1675 date stone on the south-west one.
The tower was provided with a protective stone casing about the same time.
Although the church’s medieval ornaments were sold or abandoned at the Reformation, the bells survived until 1846. They were then broken up
and replaced with a peal of five, the tenor bell (the heaviest at about 9 cwt) being added in 1884.
The six bells were rehung on ball-bearings in 1935, but on July 25th 1970 the tenor bell cracked and became unusable. On examination the bells
were found to be in poor condition, badly hung and too heavy for most young ringers. They were then recast at the Whitechapel Foundry, the
world’s oldest bell foundry, to give a light peal of eight. The new peal was hung the following year, is half the weight of its predecessor and
considerably lighter than the peal of those broken up in 1846.
With a total weight of about 18 cwt, including a tenor bell of just under four cwt, it is said that the present Woodchurch bells are one of the
lightest peals of eight in England, Although it is not a direct comparison, it is worth noting that the weight of the great tenor bell in
Liverpool Cathedral, with its peal of twelve bells, is four tons (or 80 cwt) for just one bell !
Each bell in the Woodchurch peal, as in other church peals, is unique in its size, weight and note (see the section ‘Description of the W
oodchurch Bells’). The peal therefore needs a ‘band’ of skilled people to operate it, people who, over the centuries, have been able to command
a fee for their skills. From entries made in the churchwardens accounts in 1763 there was in being a paid band of ringers, with several entries
thereafter for sums paid for “ringing on the Birth of a Prince.” The Battle of Trafalgar is reflected in the entry (1805) “By cash spent on the
Ringers for Nelson’s Victory, 3s.” A charge is still made today for ringing at a wedding, but sadly no longer only three shillings (15p)!
Bell Ringing in Action
How a bell works
English style ringing is also called 'full circle ringing', and evolved in England about 400 years ago.
The style of ringing, and the way the bells are hung, are intimately connected, and evolved together.
The bell and wheel are both mounted on the headstock, which is free to rotate. The bell is shown here
mouth down, at rest, but when ringing, it swings through 360 degrees from mouth-up to mouth-up
and back again.
The rope is attached to the wheel, passing round it and down through a pulley block to the ringing
room many feet below. The rope is all that connects the ringer below to the bell above. It wraps
alternately each way round the wheel, so that the rope is in tension as the bell comes to rest at
he end of each swing, and the ringer can control it by exerting more or less force as required.
The diagram shows the position of the bell and rope at each stroke. Less rope is wound round the
wheel at handstroke than at backstroke (see arrows). As a result the ringer has surplus rope at
handstroke, and therefore holds the 'sally' - the fluffy coloured part some way from the rope end.
The sally dissappears through the ceiling each backstroke in the animation.
The bell can be rested when it is mouth up, with the stay resting against the a slider bar underneath the bell.
It slides in order to let the bell go just beyond the balance point in each direction. The slider bar, seen end on
in the diagram, moves about a foot, within a slot in the runner board (shown grey). The clapper strikes on
opposite sides of the bell at each stroke. As the bell comes to rest, the clapper keeps going, so it strikes the
eading edge each time.
Ringing in sequence
Ringing many bells in sequence is the essence of the English style (in contrast to the random sounds that are traditional in many parts of
the world). Full circle ringing makes this possible, because you can accurately control the timing when each bell strikes. When swinging up
near the balance point, the bell no longer behaves like a pendulum (whose period of swing is fixed). The time it
takes the bell to swing varies with how high it swings - swing a little higher and it rings moreslowly, swing a
little less high and it rings more quickly. So it is possible for each ringer to adjust the speed of his or her bell
to fit in exactly with the others, and therefore ring in sequence. It is also possible to vary the speed of
individual bells by larger amounts, in order to vary the order of the bells from one sequence to the next,
and add variety. This is the essence of change ringing.
There is a physical limit to how much the timing can be varied between successive swings of a bell, so we still
can’t play ‘tunes’ in the normal sense. If you do hear tunes coming from a tower, then they are being played on
static bells, either by a machine, or manually from a keyboard.
Pictures taken from Holy Cross Church Tower your users know a little more about you.
View of Houghton Road from Tower
Spiral staircase, looking down
Inside the bell tower.